The two types of research for the future of Reach

In 1925, John Logie Baird arrived in the reception of the Daily Express’s offices, hoping to demonstrate his recently invented television to the news editor. The editor’s reaction was less than welcoming — he is reported to have said to his staff: “For God’s sake, go down to reception and get rid of a lunatic who’s down there. He says he’s got a machine for seeing by wireless! Watch him — he may have a razor on him.”

Despite this lack of faith at the time, the nature of news has changed significantly since 1925. Within the 20th century inventions such as the television and the internet changed how people consume news, and the role that newspapers play in people’s lives. The growth of social media in the 21st century has also impacted how people find and consume news.

Publishers like Reach have to ensure that they adapt and remain relevant as people’s needs from news providers change. To do this successfully, the organisation needs to make sure it understands its users, and is evaluating whether it’s meeting their needs in a sustainable way.

User research is an essential ingredient to successfully adapting to a changing marketplace. This blog post will cover two of the main ways in which research supports this, and how the UX team have been applying these at Reach to ensure that the company is building useful and usable products.

Building the right thing

One of the most important aspects for a successful product is that it’s useful. It takes a lot of time for companies to build something — and that time is wasted if no-one will use it once it’s been made. This incurs not just the financial cost of implementing that idea, but also the opportunity cost of not doing something else with that time.

A successful product is likely to be one that allows user to achieve their goals. But what is it that readers want to get done when using our sites? “Reading the news” is an activity, not a goal in itself, and people’s motivations may not be obvious. Motivations for consuming news could include filling time on a commute, anticipating changes that will impact your business, appearing knowledgeable in front of friends about things they care about, or learning about a subject to inform voting in an election, or endless other reasons.

If Reach wanted to build something new that would be useful to our readers, the product that we’d build for each of these groups would be different, to ensure we’re helping them achieve their goal. It is therefore valuable to understand which of these motivations exist, how common each of them are, and whether there are any gaps in the market which a new product we build could fill.

At Reach, we have started running studies to understand our users and their motivations, in order to build up a broader understanding across the company that can inform decisions about what products or features are worth pursuing. Research methods for these studies focus on understanding people’s current behaviour, motivations and problems — for example observing people consuming news in a real life context, or interviewing people about their current experiences. Techniques such as diary studies, where we ask people to log their behaviour over time, can help us see things we wouldn’t catch in shorter sessions or in our lab.

We also recognise that when providing digital news, our users are not just the people who read our content, but also the advertisers who use our pages to promote their services — both groups have goals that they are trying to achieve from our web pages, and exploring both can inspire creative solutions that meet the needs of all of our users.

These research activities help reduce the risk of spending time building something no-one wants, and inspires creative and informed decisions about what Reach should be doing to ensure it remains relevant. But it’s not the only way in which research helps…

Building the thing right

Once a team has decided what they are trying to achieve, they also need to check that they are successfully doing so. Even when an idea is great, the implementation can be poor — and in a competitive marketplace software that is confusing or difficult to use is at risk of being overtaken by competitors who implement the same idea better due to the low barrier of entry when making digital things.

At Reach we’ve been exploring bold ideas for how to meet the needs of people consuming news in the 21st century, and the design, development, data and product teams have been collaborating to come up with and explore a range of options for the future of news.

Research can support this collaboration, by designing and running studies that help evaluate whether the ideas are understood and can be used in the way we hope users will. This can include techniques such as usability testing in our research lab, remote unmoderated testing where readers are set tasks to complete at home and their experience is recorded, or evaluating prototypes of different levels of fidelity (from sketches on paper to working code) to expose issues before the decisions are baked in. Reach’s experienced data and analytics team do a lot of work to achieve this already by understanding how changes to the existing site impact user behaviour.

The findings from these studies inform iterations of the design to ensure users are experiencing the software as intended. We also recognise that providing news is impossible without journalists, and understanding their experience is essential for designing the end to end service required for our products to work. Over time we will be broadening our studies to ensure that the internal experience of authoring and publishing content is understood and designed in a way that supports the experience we want to give to our readers.

In 1925 it would have been impossible to predict the radical changes to how news is created and consumed that were coming over the 20th century. It’s just as hard today to anticipate how people’s relationship with news will continue to evolve over the 21st century. However by embedding user research into it’s processes, Reach can ensure it’s adaptable and ready to face the challenges of the future.

Reach Product Development

The product development and engineering teams behind Reach plc's award-winning news websites and digital products

Steve Bromley

Written by

Reach Product Development

The product development and engineering teams behind Reach plc's award-winning news websites and digital products